Small-town/rural journalists are the extended pool of workers in the newspapers. Despite their indispensable contributions to print media, these grass-roots level reporters often remain as invisible workers and their day-to-day struggle for livelihood goes largely unnoticed.
The field study for this article was carried out in Aligarh and Hisar districts (in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana) from November 2017 to December 2019. A total of 36 in-depth interviews were held. Of the interviewees, 22 were informal journalists/freelancers (including two photojournalists); eight were full-time or part-time “on-roll” journalists; and six were key resource persons (trade union leaders; trained media workers working with government and other segments of media like television and radio broadcasting).
Who are stringers?
While a minor proportion of small-town/rural print journalists are directly employed with newspapers, a large majority of them are on-call workers or “informal journalists” who are broadly called as “stringers” in the media vocabulary.
While informal employment is the common feature of “desi stringers,” three different categories of stringers can be identified: attached stringers, own-account stringers, and freelance stringers.
Systems of wage payment
Attached stringers, who work completely or mostly for one newspaper (and its sister concerns), usually receive a very nominal monthly payment (in the range of Rs 8,000–Rs 14,000, inclusive of allowances). In return, the firms normally stipulate a monthly target (basic minimum output).
A more widely seen practice is that of volumetric payment, also known as “line account” system, which is normally followed in the case of own-account stringers. In this system, the stringers are paid as per a pre-fixed rate per column length of content provided by them. Usually, the unit of measurement of a column is centimetres. The rate per centimetre was found varying in the range of Rs 1.80 to Rs 2.50, across different Hindi newspapers. On an average, the stringers usually get only around Rs 2,000–Rs 2,500 per month.
Yet another system is that of a piece-rate payment, where the stringer gets paid according to the task completed. This is more prevalent with the freelancing stringers.
Informality is woven into the system of engagement of stringers in multiple layers. These scribes are shown as part-time staff of the newspaper, though in effect they work as “full-time part-timers.” By retaining them as part-timers (and by not including them on the roll), media firms deny them long-term benefits and legal entitlements —applicable to full-time employees. Moreover, some media houses were found avoiding direct engagement of the stringers by hiring them through news agencies (which may be owned by the same media group). HT Media of the Hindustan Times is one such example.
Quite often, the contributions of stringers go unnoticed as they may not be getting the byline for the report/story filed by them. At times, their copies/content get printed under the byline of the contact journalist in the media house.
Except in the case of attached stringers, working with multiple employers is a common feature among rural scribes. This arrangement opens up multiple sources of income and assures a reasonable flow of work opportunities. “For us, every now and then we will get a small payment from one of our newspapers. And, that will keep things moving. For others, there can be weeks and months waiting for the payments, which is quite painful,” says a freelance stringer who simultaneously works for three dailies.
Some of the freelance stringers pointed out that they have more freedom compared to attached stringers as they are not bound to report exclusively for anyone. A few of them do not even consider themselves as stringers. “I am a freelancer. Not a stringer. Stringers have no freedom, but freelancers do,” said a freelance stringer. But the same respondent, after some time, said, “We do not have any assured employment and fixed income, even if it is too low. And, this thought makes us worried all the time.”
Thus, the core issue is the trade-off between job security and freedom.
Usually, the stringers are engaged without an appointment letter. And, in many cases, they are not even provided with an identity card. The firms do not wish to give these journalists any documents to support their regular employment status to circumvent any possible legal claims that the stringers can make. As they are purely working on an informal basis, there are no paid leaves or other benefits like medical or sick leaves. Many of the respondents pointed out that even if stringers get injured while carrying out their duty, the newspaper will not meet the hospital expenses.
Side jobs and ad harvesting
Low income and irregularity in the flow of payments force stringers to do sideline work as the distribution agent of newspapers and pursue other self-employment options (for example, retail stores, internet cafes, mobile-repair shops, photo studios, and so on). Often, their main income source is these side jobs. “I get my bread and butter from tailoring work. Though, everyone considers me as a patrakar (media person),” said a respondent.
Gathering advertisements for their newspapers is a major source of supplementary income. Attractive rates of commission, which are normally in the range of 15%–20%, are also assured for this work.
Apparently, many newspapers retain a good pool of stringers for mobilising untapped advertisement funds from the rural hinterlands. “They are not news hunters; they are the ad harvesters for their dailies,” explained a senior correspondent with a prominent Hindi newspaper (in Aligarh).
Thus, advertisements help strengthen the links between small-town/rural reporters and their clients. Given this situation, in rural areas also there is a high chance for existence of “paid news.”
Normally, stringers maintain a good relationship with local administration (sarpanches, panchayat officials, contractors, district administration, police, political leaders, and so on). This mutual help also enables them to increase the circulation each year, further to other pecuniary and non-pecuniary gains.1 Given this scenario, some of the key resource persons opined that the news reported are always manipulated news. Often, the newspapers also support such compromises since this brings more advertisements along with an increase in the local circulation of the daily.
‘Social capital’ and skilling
Most often, the stringers are not professionally qualified or trained for the occupation. Nor is there any specified educational qualification prescribed for a stringer. Though some of the stringers covered in the study were graduates, mostly they had lower qualifications such as having passed intermediate or Class 10.2 Specific qualification or prior learning in journalism was rare among the respondents. Learning while doing was found to be the norm. Only three of the interviewees had some qualification in journalism (mostly a diploma/certificate earned through distance-education mode or from less well-known institutions).
Along with this, most of the newspapers were found counting certain “infrastructural qualifications” such as possession of own means of transportation (for example, a two-wheeler) and some basic equipment for carrying out the work (camera, mobile phone, laptop, and so on) for selecting the stringers.
More than the above qualifications, what is reckoned is the social capital of the stringer. Ability to get advertisements and ability to improve circulation are viewed as the most important qualifications.
Even after being inducted as stringers, these rural scribes are not provided with any on-job training by the newspapers. Thus, it is evident that the media firms are completely saving costs on account of training and skill development.
Work conditions and precarity
Stringers’ jobs are normally characterised by dismal working conditions. Most of the stringers are usually paid measly sums and there is no regular flow of salaries. In most cases, they have to wait for weeks and months for the payment. Sometimes, such payments never reach them.
The services of stringers can be terminated whenever the newspapers want to do so. As they are not part of any trade unions, and since things that are happening in rural areas and far-off places do not usually figure in national-level discussions, their individual issues often become their own struggles.
Stringers often carry out the work assigned to them more diligently vis-а-vis the regular journalists. In terms of working hours and work efforts, often the contributions of stringers are more compared to the permanent and regular employees.
Quite often, support from the employer organisation during difficult times such as litigation and physical attack from enemies is not available to the rural stringers. Those who dare to expose crimes and illegal actions in their locality are found risking their personal safety. Quite often, these risk-takers get threats and pressures from political heads, mafia dons, and so on. The study team interviewed one such journalist. This well-known freelance photographer in Aligarh was always found moving with two young assistants who also serve as his bodyguards. “Their main job is to be with me. I have a lot of enemies due to my reporting style. So, who knows when someone stops me on the road and breaks my camera, which is worth more than a lakh? So, I have to earn for three persons!”
Perniciousness and privileges
In extreme cases, a few stringers are reported to be engaged in blackmailing and extortion. Here, the stringers utilise their nuisance value and engage in rent-seeking, as a reward for not reporting certain (real or unreal) news or for distorting news to the advantage or disadvantage of a particular person/client. Often the concerned individuals would be ready to arrive at a collusive compromise with the stringer. These “compromises” can take various forms, including payment of bribes, presenting gifts, provision of goods and services from the enterprises of the clients, and so on.
New challenges and insecurities
Over time, many of the newspapers have become subscribers of news agencies and wire services. Agencies like ANI (Asian News International) now have thousands of stringers and reporters in rural areas. The spread of such agency reporters has severely hit the employment of newspaper stringers.
The large-scale penetration of television reporting in small towns and rural areas also throws up challenges for print media stringers. Often, television stringers also double up as reporters for newspapers. This limits the role of conventional print media stringers.
Yet another threat is from the so-called “citizen journalism.” “Even before we come to know about the news, it is reported. So, whatever we report are matters that they already know through WhatsApp,” a stringer explained his dilemma.
Rural stringers constitute the most vulnerable category of print media journalists. The system of stringers helps the media firms minimise the news production costs in two ways. First, they are able to reduce the number of regular journalists and cut down the total salary bill considerably. Second, the firms can significantly slash the cost of news gathering, given the paltry payments admissible to the rural stringers’ work. The net result is a continuous growth of precarious employment with deplorable terms and conditions.
This situation calls for urgent interventions3 from all stakeholders (especially from the government) to promote decent work and fair labour standards for rural stringers. This task becomes all the more crucial at this juncture, as the unexpected onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown would have surely intensified the crises of employment and livelihood for these most informal of workers of the fourth estate.
1. Commission from advertisements is the major pecuniary gain. The major non-pecuniary benefit is the recognition, social acceptance, as well as the influence that the stringer gains by virtue of associating himself with the newspaper.
2. Interestingly, one of the stringers had a PhD degree. He was a freelance stringer, whose case was completely different from all the other interviewees. Thus, his case can be viewed as an “outlier.” This stringer claimed that he gets huge payments as commission for advertisements gathered.
3. Strict regulation of pernicious practices followed by employers, promotion of worker associations/collectivity, and introduction of protective labour laws and effective welfare measures are certain desirable matters.
Babu P Remesh is Dean, School of Development Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Views are personal.
This is an edited excerpt from the author’s research, which was first published in the Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) journal. Read the article in full here.